Cris Collinsworth of the Fort Thomas, Ky., Cris Collinsworths doesn't get to see the hometown team that much. Not with a game in a different city every week on the way to winning another Emmy. And Collinsworth now has as many Emmys analyzing pro football as he had catches in his final season for the Bengals that Super Bowl season of 1988 with 13.
So when he does watch the Bengals on tape for a single, intense week like he's doing now in preparation for NBC's Sunday night broadcast in Pittsburgh (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5), they jump out at him in either huge leaps or stunning drops. And on Thursday afternoon he was raving about how good the tape is looking.
"Compared to where I was before I put on the tape to where I am now, I think they are better than I thought they were," Collinsworth said. "When they get Leon Hall and Geno Atkins back next year, they'll be favorites. … Believe me, this team is good. They really are, they're tough."
When Collinsworth retired as the Bengals all-time leading receiver after playing in Super Bowl XXIII, he left the NFL's top-ranked offense fueled by the league's best offensive line. In the wake of left tackle Andrew Whitworth's move to left guard and Anthony Collins replacing him at left tackle, Collinsworth knows what a top offensive line is supposed to look like.
"When I was finished with (the tape), I said this offensive line is as good as anybody I've seen," Collinsworth said. "They're much better than most. They can run inside. The real difference is the mobility of those two guys on the left side. Obviously they have the mobility at tight end when they bring them into block, but now the screen game, the pitch game … when you can go outside a defense and still cram it down their throat a little bit, which they can do with (running back) BenJarvus (Green-Ellis), that's big."
The one play that has caught Collinsworth's attention this week is running back Giovani Bernard's sweep left that rolled for 20 yards against the Colts on the way to last Sunday's 42-28 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.
"Hardly anyone in the NFL is making yards on the toss sweep; that's like a high school team," he said. "The Bengals can beat you in a lot of ways."
Collinsworth says the biggest addition is Bernard and how he reminds him of Darren Sproles of the Saints. And he believes the two tight-end sets of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert have given the Bengals Old School Patriots-like diversification. But he can't stop talking about that offensive line.
"They've now got two big, athletic guys on that left side running out and pulling powers across the formation. They're a little more secure now blocking in front of Andy Dalton," Collinsworth said. "Collins has feet like an NBA forward. He can move, he's a very athletic guy and to hold off a guy like (Colts NFL-leading sacker) Robert Mathis … it was big bringing in that second tight end. To have those two tight ends, flex them out and play them like the Patriots and then bring them in tight and play a little power football … ."
After watching center Kyle Cook, Collinsworth invoked the name of one of those folk heroes from the other side of the line on that '88 team, nose tackle Tim Krumrie, the 10th-round pick who went to two Pro Bowls.
"Cook is a technician. I always thought of him as being the other guy, but he is tenacious," Collinsworth said. "He stays on blocks, he gets out in space and his effort really shows through. Maybe it's part of his (undrafted) pedigree. It's kind of like that Krumrie workmanlike attitude to him on the field. This time of year, finishing blocks pays off."
Yes, Collinsworth says Dalton can get the Bengals to the Super Bowl. "The way he played the other day, absolutely," he said. And a big reason is because a defense can't possibly cover all of Dalton's weapons, starting with the two outside receivers.
"Andy seems to be getting the ball out of his hands so quickly now. They're not getting pressure on him. You can tell he's really growing up at the quarterback position," Collinsworth said. "A.J. (Green) is one of the best players in the game right now. For Marvin Jones to occasionally get behind the defense and make a touchdown catch like he did the other day, it unsettles the defense. Now what do you do? You can't cover both tight ends. They're good receivers. Bernard is incredible coming out of the backfield and I think he's only going to get better. We know what A.J. is. Now you've got that other side where you have to play coverage … there aren't many teams that can attack you in as many ways as the Bengals can."
For all that, Collinsworth calls Sunday's game a virtual tossup. The Steelers are a different and healthier team than the one that lost to the Bengals in the second week of the season with the return of tight end Heath Miller and running back Le'Veon Bell. Plus, they're difficult to beat at Heinz Field. But he also thinks the Bengals are one of the few teams that have a real shot at winning the AFC.
"If they can win this week, the Patriots get beat in Miami and they somehow hold on to that No. 2 seed," Collinsworth said. "I don't know of any of the rest of the teams in the AFC that can come in here and beat them in a playoff game. Then you've got one shot, probably against Denver, to go to the Super Bowl and I don't think you can ask for a better scenario. I'm not sure if anyone can beat Peyton Manning the way he's playing right now. But look what Baltimore did last year in Denver. Who could have called that late pass and they go on and win the Super Bowl? Absolutely they have a chance. If you've got the No. 2 seed, you've got a chance."
Collinsworth is always careful to walk that Emmy line. And yes, once a Bengal, always a Bengal. But, well, the tape never lies.
"I cheer for the guys. I try to watch as many of their games as I can, but I always wonder if I'm biased in what I see," Collinsworth said. "But when I put on the game tapes, that's when I can really be objective. I'm used to critiquing teams in that way."
And right now, the tape looks pretty good.
"They've got a lot of ways to beat you and we'll talk about that some in the game," he said.